A hard-charging retriever and cold weather, combined with long swims and retrieves, can sap even a well-conditioned dog's energy reserves. Nutritional priming your retriever with a high-protein/high-fat performance food helps provide the right nutrients needed for optimal strength, speed and endurance.

"You can improve a dog's athleticism during hard work by feeding a performance food because it metabolically primes the dog to use these fuels for exercise," says Dr. Brian Zanghi, Purina Research Nutritionist. The harder retrievers work, the greater their fat and protein metabolism, Zanghi explains. "Fat is the preferred source of energy during exercise. A high-fat diet increases the number of mitochondria in muscle cells, which promotes burning fat for energy. Protein helps to support strong muscles and maintain the body-protein balance during hard work when exercise activates protein breakdown."

A scientist who studies the role of nutrition in optimizing the performance of active dogs, Zanghi is a passionate retriever enthusiast who takes to heart giving dogs the best nutrition possible. His now retired black Lab, Baxter, 15, titled as a Hunting Retriever, adored going to the duck blind, and Zanghi is training a new puppy, Aspen, 4 months old, who was sired by DU mascot Deke, to enjoy the sport as well.

"Ideally, sporting dogs should be fed a performance food that provides from 28 to 30 percent protein and from 18 to 20 percent fat to sustain their high-energy demand," advises Zanghi.

A performance food should be year-round. "Switching to a maintenance diet in the off-season is like metabolically detraining your dog," Zanghi says. "Maintenance dog foods contain higher levels of carbohydrates, which decrease the metabolic capacity to use fats, which ultimately results in reduced endurance. It is best to reduce the portion fed in the off-season and monitor a dog's body condition to keep a dog healthy and fit."

An important tip before heading out to go waterfowling is not to feed your retriever beforehand. "Eating creates an insulin spike that inhibits the body's ability to use fat," Zanghi says. "It is best to feed a minimum of 10 to 12 hours before exercise, such as the night before hunting. Feeding 6 hours or sooner before exercise contributes to reduced endurance and energy generation. If you feel you must feed in the morning, a small amount is best followed by the rest of the daily ration at the end of the day."

Complete digestion takes from 20 to 24 hours and thus feeding a dog before exercise could result in the retention of fecal matter in the colon that could compromise performance by adding extra bulk in the intestine. Exercise alters the gastrointestinal time and can change nutrient digestion and absorption resulting in a decrease in blood flow, and therefore, oxygen to the gut.

Nutritional priming should be part of your retriever training. Dogs fueled with the right nutrients have what it takes to optimize performance and give big results when it matters most - from the duck blind.

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